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THE QUESTION OF OUR SPEECH 
THE LESSON OF BALZAC 



THE QUESTION OF OUR 

SPEECH 
THE LESSON OF BALZAC 

CtDo JLectutejs 

BY HENRY JAMES 




BOSTON AND NEW YORK 
HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN AND COMPANY 

1905 



COPYRIGHT 1905 BY HENRY JAMES 
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED 

Published October iqos 



I 

THE QUESTION OF OUR 
SPEECH 



THE QUESTION OF OUR 
SPEECH ' 

I AM offered the opportunity of address- 
ing you a few observations on a sub- 
ject that should content itself, to my 
thinking, with no secondary place among 
those justly commended to your attention 
on such a day as this, and that yet will not, 
I dare say, have been treated before you, 
very often, as a matter especially inviting 
that attention. You will have been ap- 
pealed to, at this season, and in prepara- 
tion for this occasion, with admirable 
persuasion and admirable effect, I make 
no doubt, on behalf of many of the in- 
terests and ideals, scholarly, moral, social, 
you have here so happily pursued, many 
of the duties, responsibilities, opportunities 

* Address to the graduating class at Bryn Mawr 
College, Pennsylvania, June 8, 1905 ; here printed 
with the restoration of a few passages omitted on that 
occasion. 



THE QUESTION OF 

you have learned, in these beautiful con- 
ditions, at the threshold of life, to see open 
out before you. These admonitions, taken 
together, will have borne, essentially, upon 
the question of culture, as you are ex- 
pected to consider and cherish it; and 
some of them, naturally, will have pressed 
on the higher, the advanced developments 
of that question, those that are forever 
flowering above our heads and waving and 
rustling their branches in the blue vast of 
human thought. Others, meanwhile, will 
have lingered over the fundamentals, as 
we may call them, the solid, settled, seated 
elements of education, the things of which 
it is held, in general, that our need of 
being reminded of them must rarely be 
allowed to become a desperate or a fever- 
ish need. These underlying things, truths 
of tradition, of aspiration, of discipline, of 
training consecrated by experience, are 
understood as present in any liberal course 
of study or scheme of character ; yet they 
4 



OUR SPEECH 

permit of a certain renewed reference and 
slightly ceremonial insistence, perhaps, on 
high days and holidays ; without the fear, 
on the part of any one concerned, of their 
falling too much into the category of the 
commonplace. I repeat, however, that there 
is a prime part of education, an element 
of the basis itself, in regard to which I 
shall probably remain within the bounds 
of safety in declaring that no explicit, no 
separate, no adequate plea will be likely 
to have ranged itself under any one of 
your customary heads of commemoration. 
If there are proprieties and values, perfect 
possessions of the educated spirit, clear 
humanities, as the old collegiate usage 
beautifully named them, that may be 
taken absolutely for granted, taken for 
granted as rendering any process of train- 
ing simply possible, the indispensable pre- 
liminary I allude to, and that I am about 
to name, would easily indeed present it- 
self in that light; thus confessing to its 
5 



THE QUESTION OF 

established character and its tacit interven- 
tion. A virtual consensus of the educated, 
of any gathered group, in regard to the 
speech that, among the idioms and articu- 
lations of the globe, they profess to make 
use of, may well strike us, in a given case, 
as a natural, an inevitable assumption. 
Without that consensus, to every appear- 
ance, the educative process cannot be 
thought of as at all even beginning ; we 
readily perceive that without it the mere 
imparting of a coherent culture would 
never get under way. This imparting of 
a coherent culture is a matter of commu- 
nication and response — each of which 
branches of an understanding involves the 
possession of a common language, with its 
modes of employment, its usage, its au- 
thority, its beauty, in working form ; a 
medium of expression, in short, organized 
and developed. So obvious is such a truth 
that even at these periods of an especially 
excited consciousness of your happy ap- 
6 



OUR SPEECH 

proximation to the ideal, your conquest, 
so far as it has proceeded, of the humani- 
ties aforesaid, of the great attainable 
amenities, you would not think of expect- 
ing that your not having failed to master 
the system of mere vocal sounds that ren- 
ders your fruitful association with each 
other a thinkable thing should be made 
a topic of inquiry or of congratulation. 
You would say if you thought about the 
point at all : " Why, of course we speak 
in happy forms ; we arrive here, arrive 
from our convenient homes, our wonder- 
ful schools, our growing cities, our great 
and glorious States, speaking in those 
happy forms in which people speak whose 
speech promotes the refinements (in a 
word the success) of intercourse, intellec- 
tual and social — not in any manner in 
which people speak whose speech frus- 
trates, or hampers, or mocks at them. 
That conquest is behind us, and we invite 
no discussion of the question of whether 



THE QUESTION OF 

we are articulate, whether we are Intelli- 
gibly, or completely, expressive — we ex- 
pose ourselves to none ; the question of 
whether we are heirs and mistresses of the 
art of making ourselves satisfactorily 
heard, conveniently listened to, comfort- 
ably and agreeably understood/' 

Such, I say, is the assumption that 
everything must always have ministered 
to your making : so much as to stamp 
almost with a certain indecorum, on the 
face of the affair, any breach of the silence 
surrounding these familiar securities and 
serenities. I can only stand before you, 
accordingly, as a breaker of the silence ; 
breaking it as gently, of course, as all the 
pleasant proprieties of this hour demand, 
but making the point that there is an 
element of fallacy — in plain terms a 
measurable mistake — in the fine confi- 
dence I am thus feeling my way to im- 
pute to you. It is needless to make sure 
of the basis of the process of communica- 
8 



OUR SPEECH 

tion and intercourse when it is clear, when 
it is positive, that such a basis exists and 
flourishes ; but that is a question as to 
which the slightest shade of doubt is dis- 
quieting, disconcerting — fatal indeed; so 
that an exceptional inquiry into the case is 
then prescribed. I shall suggest our mak- 
ing this inquiry altogether — after having 
taken it thus as exceptionally demanded; 
making it rapidly, in the very limited way 
for which our present conditions allow us 
moments ; but at least with the feeling 
that we are breaking ground where it had 
not hitherto, among us, strangely enough, 
been much broken, and where some mea- 
surable good may spring, for us, from our 
action. 

If we may not then be said to be able 
to converse before we are able to talk (and 
study is essentially, above all in such a 
place as this, your opportunity to converse 
with your teachers and inspirers), so we 
may be said not to be able to " talk " 
9 



THE QUESTION OF 

before we are able to speak: whereby you 
easily see what we thus get. We may not 
be said to be able to study — and a for- 
tiori do any of the things we study /^r — 
unless we are able to speak. All life there- 
fore comes back to the question of our 
speech, the medium through which we 
communicate with each other ; for all life 
comes back to the question of our rela- 
tions with each other. These relations are 
made possible, are registered, are verily 
constituted, by our speech, and are success- 
ful (to repeat my word) in proportion as 
our speech is worthy of its great human 
and social function ; is developed, delicate, 
flexible, rich — an adequate accompHshed 
fact. The more it suggests and expresses 
the more we live by it — the more it pro- 
motes and enhances life. Its quality, its au- 
thenticity, its security, are hence supremely 
important for the general multifold oppor- 
tunity, for the dignity and integrity, of our 
existence. 

10 



OUR SPEECH 

These truths, you see, are incontestable; 
yet though you are daughters, fortunate 
in many respects, of great commonwealths 
that have been able to render you many 
attentions, to surround you with most of 
the advantages of peace and plenty, it is 
none the less definite that there will have 
been felt to reign among you, in general, 
no positive mark whatever, public or 
private, of an effective consciousness of 
any of them ; the consciousness, namely 
— a sign of societies truly possessed of 
light — that no civilized body of men and 
women has ever left so vital an interest to 
run wild, to shift, as we say, all for itself, 
to stumble and flounder, through mere ad- 
venture and accident, in the common dust 
of life, to pick up a living, in fine, by the 
wayside and the ditch. Of the degree in 
which a society is civilized the vocal form, 
the vocal tone, the personal, social accent 
and sound of its intercourse, have always 
been held to give a direct reflection. That 
II 



THE QUESTION OF 

sound, that vocal form, the touchstone of 
manners, is the note, the representative 
note — representative of its having (in our 
poor, imperfect human degree) achieved 
civilization. Judged in this light, it must 
frankly be said, our civilization remains 
strikingly un3.ch.icvtd : the last of Ameri- 
can idiosyncrasies, the last by which we 
can be conceived as " represented " in the 
international concert of culture, would be 
the pretension to a tone-standard, to our 
wooing comparison with that of other 
nations. The French, the Germans, the 
Italians, the English perhaps in particular, 
and many other people. Occidental and 
Oriental, I surmise, not excluding the 
Turks and the Chinese, have for the sym- 
bol of education, of civility, a tone-stand- 
ard ; we alone flourish in undisturbed and 
— as in the sense of so many other of 
our connections — in something like sub- 
lime unconsciousness of any such possi- 
bility. 

12 



OUR SPEECH 

It IS impossible, in very fact, to have a 
tone-standard without the definite prelim- 
inary of a care for tone, and against a care 
for tone, it would very much appear, the 
elements of life in this country, as at pre- 
sent conditioned, violently and increasingly 
militate. At one or two reasons for this 
strange but consummate conspiracy I shall 
in a moment ask you to glance with me, 
but in the meanwhile I should go any 
length in agreeing with you about any such 
perversity, on the part of parents and 
guardians, pastors and masters, as their 
expecting the generations, whether of 
young women or young men, to arrive at 
a position of such comparative superior- 
ity alone — unsupported and unguided. 
There is no warrant for the placing on 
these inevitably rather light heads and 
hearts, on any company of you, assaulted, 
in our vast vague order, by many pressing 
wonderments, the whole of the burden of 
a care for tone. A care for tone is part 
13 



THE QUESTION OF 

of a care for many other things besides ; 
for the fact, for the value, of good breed- 
ing, above all, as to which tone unites 
with various other personal, social signs to 
bear testimony. The idea of good breed- 
ing — without which intercourse fails to 
flower into fineness, without which human 
relations bear but crude and tasteless fruit 
— is one of the most precious conquests 
of civilization, the very core of our social 
heritage ; but in the transmission of which 
it becomes us much more to be active and 
interested than merely passive and irre- 
sponsible participants. It is an idea, the 
idea of good breeding (in other words, 
simply the idea of secure good manners), 
for which, always, in every generation, 
there is yet more, and yet more, to be done ; 
and no danger would be more lament- 
able than that of the real extinction, in our 
hands, of so sacred a flame. Flames, how- 
ever, even the most sacred, do not go on 
burning of themselves ; they require to 



OUR SPEECH 

be kept up ; handed on the torch needs 
to be from one group of patient and com- 
petent watchers to another. The possibil- 
ity, the preferability, of people's speaking 
as people speak when their speech has 
had for them a signal importance, is a 
matter to be kept sharply present ; from 
that comes support, comes example, comes 
authority — from that comes the inspira- 
tion of those comparative beginners of life, 
the hurrying children of time, who are 
but too exposed to be worked upon, by a 
hundred circumstances, in a different and 
inferior sense. You don't speak soundly 
and agreeably, you don't speak neatly and 
consistently, unless you know how you 
speak, how you may, how you should, how 
you shall speak, unless you have discrim- 
inated, unless you have noticed differences 
and suffered from violations and vulgari- 
ties ; and you have not this positive con- 
sciousness, you are incapableof any reaction 
of taste or sensibility worth mentioning, 
15 



THE QUESTION OF 

unless a great deal of thought of the mat- 
ter has been taken /or you. 

Taking thought, in this connection, is 
what I mean by obtaining a tone-standard 
— a clear criterion of the best usage and 
example : which is but to recognize, once 
for all, that avoiding vulgarity, arriving 
at lucidity, pleasantness, charm, and con- 
tributing by the mode and the degree of 
utterance a colloquial, a genial value even 
to an inevitably limited quantity of inten- 
tion, of thought, is an art to be acquired 
and cultivated, just as much as any of 
the other, subtler, arts of life. There are 
plenty of influences round about us that 
make for an imperfect disengagement of 
the human side of vocal sound, that make 
for the confused, the ugly, the flat, the 
thin, the mean, the helpless, that reduce 
articulation to an easy and ignoble mini- 
mum, and so keep it as little distinct as 
possible from the grunting, the squealing, 
the barking or the roaring of animals. I 
i6 



OUR SPEECH 

do not mean to say that civility of utter- 
ance may not become an all but uncon- 
scious beautiful habit — I mean to say, 
thank goodness, that this is exactly what 
it may become. But so to succeed it must 
be a collective and associated habit ; for 
the greater the number of persons speak- 
ing well, in given conditions, the more 
that number will tend to increase, and the 
smaller the number the more that number 
will tend to shrink and lose itself in the 
desert of the common. Contact and com- 
munication, a beneficent contagion, bring 
about the happy state — the state of sen- 
sibility to tone, the state of recognizing, 
and responding to, certain vocal sounds as 
tone, and recognizing and reacting from 
certain others as negations of tone : nega- 
tions the more offensive in proportion as 
they have most enjoyed impunity. You 
will have, indeed, in any at all aspiring 
cultivation of tone, a vast mass of assured 
impunity, of immunity on the wrong side 
17 



THE QUESTION OF 

of the line, to reckon with. There are in 
every quarter, in our social order, impuni- 
ties of aggression and corruption in plent}^; 
but there are none, I think, showing so 
unperturbed a face — wearing, I should 
slangily say, if slang were permitted me 
here, so impudent a " niug " — as the 
forces assembled to make you believe that 
no form of speech is provably better than 
another, and that just this matter of 
"care" is an affront to the majesty of sov- 
ereign ignorance. Oh, I don't mean to say 
that you will find in the least a clear field 
and nothing but favor ! The difficulty 
of your case is exactly the ground of my 
venturing thus to appeal to you. That 
there is difficulty, that there is a great 
blatant, blowing dragon to slay, can only 
constitute, as it appears to me, a call of 
honor for generous young minds, some- 
thing of a trumpet-sound for tempers of 
high courage. 

And now, of course, there are questions 
i8 



OUR SPEECH 

you may ask me : as to what I more in- 
timately mean by speaking " well," by 
speaking " ill ; " as to what I more defi- 
nitely mean by " tone " and by the "nega- 
tion " of tone ; as to where you are to 
recognize the presence of the exemplary 
rightness I have referred you to — as to 
where you are to see any standard raised 
to the breeze ; and above all, as to my 
reasons for referring with such emphasis to 
the character of the enemy you are to over- 
come. I am able, I think, to satisfy you 
all the way; but even in so doing I shall 
still feel our question to be interesting, as 
a whole, out of proportion to any fractions 
of an hour we may now clutch at ; feel 
that if I could only treat it with a freer 
hand and more margin I might really 
create in you a zeal to follow it up. I 
mean, then, by speaking well, in the first 
place, speaking under the influence of ob- 
servation — your own. I mean speaking 
with consideration for the forms and shades 
19 



THE QUESTION OF 

of our language, a consideration so inbred 
that it has become instinctive and well- 
nigh unconscious and automatic, as all the 
habitual, all the inveterate amenities of life 
become. By the forms and shades of our 
language I mean the innumerable differen- 
tiated, discriminated units of sound and 
sense that lend themselves to audible 
production, to enunciation, to intonation: 
those innumerable units that have, each, 
an identity, a quality, an outline, a shape, 
a clearness, a fineness, a sweetness, a rich- 
ness, that have, in a word, a value, which it 
is open to us, as lovers of our admirable 
English tradition, or as cynical traitors to 
it, to preserve or to destroy. 

Many of these units are, for instance, our 
syllables, emphasized or unemphasized, 
our parts of words, or often the whole word 
itself, our parts of sentences, coming xn for 
value and subject to be marked or missed, 
honored or dishonored — to use the term 
we use for checks at banks — as a note of 

20 



OUR SPEECH 

sound. Many of them are in particular our 
simple vowel-notes and our consonantal, 
varying, shifting — shifting in relation and 
connection, as to value and responsibility 
and place — and capable of a complete 
effect, or of a complete absence of effect, 
according as a fine ear and a fine tongue, or 
as a coarse ear and a coarse tongue, preside 
at the use of them. All our employment 
of constituted sounds, syllables, sentences, 
comes back to the way we say a thing, and 
it is very largely by saying, ail the while, 
that we live and play our parts. I am ask- 
ing you to take it from me, as the very 
moral of these remarks, that the way we 
say a thing, or fail to say it, fail to learn to 
say it, has an importance in life that it is 
impossible to overstate — a far-reaching 
importance, as the very hinge of the rela- 
tion of man to man. I am asking you to 
take that truth well home and hold it close 
to your hearts, setting your backs to the 
wall to defend it, heroically, when need 

21 



THE QUESTION OF 

may be. For need will be, among us, as I 
have already intimated, and as I shall pro- 
ceed in a moment, though very briefly, to 
show you further: you must be prepared 
for much vociferous demonstration of the 
plea that the way we say things — the way 
we " say '' in general — has as little impor- 
tance as possible. Let the demonstration 
proceed, let the demonstration abound, let 
it be as vociferous as it will, if you only 
meanwhile hug the closer the faith I thus 
commend to you ; for you will very pre- 
sently perceive that the more this vain 
contention does make itself heard, the 
more it insists, the sooner it shall begin to 
flounder waist-high in desert sands. No- 
thing, sayable or said, that pretends to 
expression, to value, to consistency, in 
whatever interest, but finds itself practically 
confronted, at once, with the tone-question: 
the only refuge from which is the mere 
making of a noise — since simple noise is 
the sort of sound in which tone ceases to 

22 



OUR SPEECH 

exist. To simple toneless noise, as an ar- 
gument for indifference to discriminated 
speech, you may certainly then listen as 
philosophically as your nerves shall allow. 
But the term I here apply brings me 
meanwhile to my second answer to your 
three or four postulated challenges — the 
question of what I mean by speaking badly. 
I might reply to you, very synthetically, 
that I mean by speaking badly speaking 
as millions and millions of supposedly 
educated, supposedly civilized persons — 
that is the point — of both sexes, in our 
great country, habitually, persistently, im- 
perturbably, and I think for the most part 
all unwittingly, speak : that form of satis- 
faction to you being good enough — is n't 
it ? — to cover much of the ground. But 
I must give you a closer account of the evil 
against which I warn you, and I think none 
is so close as this : that speaking badly is 
speaking with that want of attention to 
speech that we should blush to see any 
23 



THE QUESTION OF 

Other of our personal functions compro- 
mised by — any other controllable motion, 
or voluntary act, of our lives. Want of at- 
tention, in any act, results in a graceless 
and unlighted effect, an effect of accident 
and misadventure ; and it strikes me in this 
connection that there is no better compre- 
hensive description of our vocal habits as 
a nation, in their vast, monotonous flatness 
and crudity, than this aspect and air of 
unlightedness — which presents them as 
matters going on, gropingly, helplessly, em- 
pirically, almost dangerously (perilously, 
that is, to life and limb), in the dark. To 
walk in the dark, dress in the dark, eat 
in the dark, is to run the chance of break- 
ing our legs, of misarranging our clothes, 
of besmearing our persons; and speech 
may figure for us either as the motion, 
the food, or the clothing of intercourse, as 
you will. To do things " unlightedly " 
is accordingly to do them without neat- 
ness or completeness — and to accept that 
24 



I 



OUR SPEECH 

doom is simply to accept the doom of the 
slovenly. 

Our national use of vocal sound, in men 
and women alike, is slovenly — an abso- 
lutely inexpert daub of unapplied tone. It 
leaves us at the mercy of a medium that, 
as I say, is incomplete; which sufficiently 
accounts, as regards our whole vocal mani- 
festation, for the effect of a want of finish. 
Noted sounds have their extent and their 
limits, their mass, however concentrated, 
and their edges ; and what is the speech 
of a given society but a series, a more or 
less rich complexity, of noted sounds ? 
Nothing is commoner than to see through- 
out our country, young persons of either 
sex — for the phenomenon is most marked, 
I think, for reasons I will touch on, in the 
newer generations — whose utterance can 
only be indicated by pronouncing it desti- 
tute of any approach to an emission of the 
consonant. It becomes thus a mere help- 
less slobber of disconnected vowel noises 
25 



THE QUESTION OF 

— the weakest and cheapest attempt at 
human expression that we shall easily en- 
counter, I imagine, in any community 
pretending to the general instructed state. 
Observe, too, that the vowel sounds in 
themselves, at this rate, quite fail of any 
purity, for the reason that our consonants 
contribute to the drawing and modehng of 
our vowels — just as our vowels contribute 
to the coloring, to the painting, as we may 
call it, of our consonants, and that any fre- 
quent repetition of a vowel depending for 
all rounding and shaping on another vowel 
alone lays upon us an effort of the thorax 
under which we inevitably break down. 
Hence the undefined noises that I refer to 
when consonantal sound drops out ; drops 
as it drops, for example, among those vast 
populations to whose lips, to whose ear, it 
is so rarely given to form the terminal letter 
of our "Yes," or to hear it formed. The 
abject " Yeh-eh " (the ugliness of the drawl 
is not easy to represent) which usurps the 
26 



I 



OUR SPEECH 

place of that interesting vocable makes its 
nearest approach to deviating into the de- 
cency of a final consonant when it becomes 
a still more questionable " Yeh-ep." 

Vast numbers of people, indeed, even 
among those who speak very badly, appear 
to grope instinctively for some restoration 
of the missing value even at the cost of 
inserting it between words that begin and 
end with vowels. You will perfectly hear 
persons supposedly " cultivated," the very 
instructors of youth sometimes themselves, 
talk of vanilla-r-ice-cream, of California- 
r-oranges, of Cuba-r-and Porto Rico, of 
Atalanta-r- in Caiydon, and (very resent- 
fully) of " the idea-r-of " any intimation 
that their performance and example in 
these respects may not be immaculate. 
You will perfectly hear the sons and daugh- 
ters of the most respectable families dis- 
figure in this interest, and for this pur- 
pose, the pleasant old names of Papa and 
Mamma. " Is Popper-up stairs ? " and 
27 



THE QUESTION OF 

"is Mommer-in the parlor?" pass for 
excellent household speech in millions of 
honest homes. If the English say through- 
out, and not only sometimes, Papa and 
Mama, and the French say Papa and 
Maman, they say them consistently — 
and Popper, with an " r," but illustrates 
our loss, much to be regretted, alas, of 
the power to emulate the clearness of the 
vowel-cutting, an art as delicate in its way 
as gem-cutting, in the French word. You 
will, again, perfectly hear a gentle hostess, 
solicitous for your comfort, tell you that 
if you wish to lie down there is a sofa-r-in 
your room. No one is " thought any the 
worse of" for saying these things ; even 
though it be distinct that there are circles, 
in other communities, the societies still 
keeping the touchstone of manners, as I 
have called our question, in its place, where 
they would be punctually noted. It is 
not always a question of an r, however — 
though the letter, I grant, gets terribly 
28 



OUR SPEECH 

little rest among those great masses of our 
population who strike us, in the boundless 
West perhaps especially, as, under some 
strange impulse received toward conso- 
nantal recovery of balance, making it pre- 
sent even in words from which it is absent, 
bringing it in everywhere as with the small 
vulgar effect of a sort of morose grind- 
ing of the back teeth. There are, you see, 
sounds of a mysterious intrinsic mean- 
ness, and there are sounds of a mysterious 
intrinsic frankness and sweetness ; and I 
think the recurrent note I have indicated 
— fatherr and motherr and otherr, waterr 
and matterr and scatterr, harrd and barrd, 
parrt, starrt, and (dreadful to say) arrt (the 
repetition it is that drives home the ugli- 
ness), are signal specimens of what becomes 
of a custom of utterance out of which the 
principle of taste has dropped. 

If I speak, as to these matters of tone, 
I may add, of intrinsic meanness and in- 
trinsic sweetness, there is also no doubt that 
29 



THE QUESTION OF 

association, cumulation, the context of a 
given sound and the company we perceive 
it to be keeping, are things that have much 
to say to our better or worse impression. 
What has become of the principle of taste, 
at all events, when the j, too, breaks in, or 
breaks out, all unchecked and unchided, in 
such forms of impunity as Some-wheres- 
else and Nowheres-else, as A good ways- 
on and A good ways-off? — vulgarisms 
with which a great deal of general credit 
for what we good-naturedly call " refine- 
ment " appears so able to coexist. Credit 
for what we good-naturedly call refine- 
ment — since our national, our social good 
nature is, experimentally, inordinate — ap- 
pears able to coexist with a thousand other 
platitudes and poverties of tone, aberra- 
tions too numerous for me to linger on in 
these very limited moments, but in rela- 
tion to which all the flatly-drawling group 
— gawd and dawg, sawft and lawft, gawne 
and lawst and frawst — may stand as a hint. 
30 



OUR SPEECH 

Let me linger only long enough to add 
a mention of the deplorable effect of the 
almost total loss, among innumerable 
speakers, of any approach to purity in 
the sound of the e. It is converted, under 
this particularly ugly blight, into a u which 
is itself unaccompanied with any dignity 
of intention, which makes for mere igno- 
ble thickness and turbidity. For choice, 
perhaps, " vurry," " Amurrica," " Phila- 
dulphia,'' " tullegram," " twuddy " (what 
becomes of " twenty " here is an inepti- 
tude truly beyond any alliteration), and 
the like, descend deepest into the abyss. 
It is enough to say of those things that 
they substitute limp, slack, passive tone 
for clear, clean, active, tidy tone, and 
that they are typical, thereby, of an im- 
mense body of limpness and slackness and 
cheapness. This note of cheapness — of 
the cheap and easy — is especially fatal to 
any effect of security of intention in the 
speech of a society, for it is scarce necessary 
31 



THE QUESTION OF 

to remind you that there are two very dif- 
ferent kinds of ease : the ease that comes 
from the facing, the conquest of a diffi- 
culty, and the ease that comes from the 
vague dodging of it. In the one case you 
gain faciHty, in the other case you get mere 
looseness. In the one case the maintenance 
of civility of speech costs what it must — 
which is a price we should surely blush to 
hear spoken of as too great for our inapti- 
tude and our indolence, our stupidity and 
our frivolity, to pay. 

I must invite you indeed to recognize 
with me, at whatever cost to any possible 
share in our national self-complacency, 
that we encounter in all this connection a 
certain portent in our sky, a certain lion 
in our path, complications duly to be reck- 
oned with ; encounter them in the circum- 
stance of the voice of our people at large, 
our people abundantly schooled and news- 
papered, abundantly housed, fed, clothed, 
salaried and taxed — which happens to fall 
32 



OUR SPEECH 

on no expert attention you may easily note, 
as the finest or fullest or richest of the 
voices of the nations : this, moreover, least 
of all among our women, younger and 
older, as to whom in general, and as to the 
impression made by whom, the question 
of voice ever most comes up and has most 
importance. The vox Americana then, 
frankly, is for the spectator, or perhaps I 
should say for the auditor of life, as he 
travels far and wide, one of the stumbling- 
blocks of our continent — having no claim 
to be left out of account in any discussion 
of the matter before us. It remains for the 
moment, this collective vocal presence, this 
preponderant vocal sign, what a conver- 
gence of inscrutable forces (climatic, social, 
poHtical, theological, moral, "psychic") 
has made it and failed to make it : so that 
I shall ask you to let it stand for you thus 
as a temporarily 'final fact — so stand long 
enough to allow me to say that, whatever 
else it is, it has been, among the organs of 
33 



THE QUESTION OF 

the schooled and newspapered races, per- 
ceptibly the most abandoned to its fate. 
That truth about it is more to our purpose 
than any other, and throws much light, I 
am convinced, on the manner in which it 
affects and afflicts us. I shall go so far as 
to say that there is no such thing as a voice 
pure and simple : there is only, for any 
business of appreciation, the voice plus the 
way it is employed ; an employment de- 
termined here by a greater number of influ- 
ences than we can now go into — beyond 
affirming at least, that when such in- 
fluences, in general, have acted for a long 
time we think of them as having made 
not only the history of the voice, but pos- 
itively the history of the national charac- 
ter, almost the history of the people. 

It would take thus too long to tell you 
why the English voice, or why the French, 
or why the Italian, is so free to strike us as 
not neglected, not abandoned to its fate ; 
as having much rather been played upon, 
34 



OUR SPEECH 

through the generations, by a multitude 
of causes which have finally begotten, in 
each of these instances, as means to an end, 
a settled character, a certain ripeness, final- 
ity and felicity. I cannot but regard the 
unsettled character and the inferior quality 
of the colloquial vox Americana — and I 
speak here but of the poor dear distracted 
organ itself — as in part a product of that 
mere state of indifference to a speech- 
standard and to a tone-standard on which 
I have been insisting. The voice, I repeat, 
is, as to much of its action and much of 
its effect, not a separate, lonely, lost thing, 
but largely what the tone, the conscious, 
intended, associated tone, makes of it — 
and what the tone that has none of these 
attributes falls short of making ; so that if 
we here again, as a people, take care, if we 
take even common care, of the question, 
for fifty years or thereabout, I have no 
doubt we shall in due course find the sub- 
ject of our solicitude put on, positively, a 
35 



THE QUESTION OF 

surface, find it reflect and repay the enlight- 
ened effort. We shall find that, while we 
have been so well occupied, the vocal, the 
tonic possibilities within us all, grateful to us 
for the sense of a flattering interest, of the 
oflFer of a new life, have been taking care, 
better care, excellent care, o{ themselves. The 
experiment, absolutely, would be worth try- 
ing — and perhaps not on so formidable a 
scale of time either. We see afresh, at any 
rate, into what interesting relations and 
ramifications our topic opens out — if only 
as an illustration of what we may do for our- 
selves by merely raising our question and 
setting it up before us. With it verily we 
raise and set up the question of our man- 
ners as well, for that is indissolubly involved. 
To discriminate, to learn to find our way 
among noted sounds, find it as through the 
acquisition of a new ear; to begin to prefer 
form to the absence of form, to distinguish 
color from the absence of color — all this 
amounts to substituting manner for the 

36 



OUR SPEECH 

absence of manner: whereby it is manners 
themselves, or something like a sketchy ap- 
proach to a dim gregarious conception of 
them, that we shall (delicious thought !) 
begin to work round to the notion of. 

I should also not fail to remind you, 
for keeping all things clear, that I refer 
here not specifically, in fact not directly at 
all, to our handling of the English lan- 
guage as such — even though wonderful 
enough the adventure may be to which, 
in our so unceremonious, so simplified and 
simplifying conditions, we are treating that 
ancient and battered but still nobly robust 
and at the same time tenderly vulnerable 
idiom. I am not doing so, because this 
matter of the use and abuse of our mother- 
tongue would be another theme altogether, 
in spite of its close alliance with the ques- 
tion before us. Yet I cannot wholly forget 
that the adventure, as I name it, of our 
idiom and the adventure of our utterance 
have been fundamentally the same adven- 
37 



THE QUESTION OF 

ture and the same experience ; that they at 
a given period migrated together, immi- 
grated together, into the great raw world 
in which they were to be cold-shouldered 
and neglected together, left to run wild and 
lose their way together. They have suf- 
fered and strayed together, and the future 
of the one, we must after all remember, is 
necessarily and logically the prospect or 
the doom of the other. Keep in sight the 
so interesting historical truth that no lan- 
guage, so far back as our acquaintance with 
history goes, has known any such ordeal, 
any such stress and strain, as was to await 
the English in this huge new community 
it was so unsuspectingly to help, at first, 
to father and mother. It came over^ as 
the phrase is, came over originally with- 
out fear and without guile — but to find 
itself transplanted to spaces it had never 
dreamed, in its comparative humility, 
of covering, to conditions it had never 
dreamed, in its comparative innocence, of 

38 



OUR SPEECH 

meeting ; to find itself grafted, in short, on 
a social and political order that was both 
without previous precedent and example 
and incalculably expansive. 

Taken on the whole by surprise it may 
doubtless be said to have behaved as well 
as unfriended heroine ever behaved in dire 
predicament — refusing, that is, to be 
frightened quite to death, looking about 
for a modus vivendi^ consenting to live, 
preparing to wait on developments. I say 
" unfriended " heroine because that is ex- 
actly my point : that whereas the great 
idioms of Europe in general have grown 
up at home and in the family, the ancestral 
circle (with their migrations all comfortably 
prehistoric), our transported maiden, our 
unrescued Andromeda, our medium of 
utterance, was to be disjoined from all the 
associations, the other presences, that had 
attended her, that had watched for her and 
with her, that had helped to form her man- 
ners and her voice, her taste and her genius. 
39 



THE QUESTION OF 

It is the high modernism of the condi- 
tions now surrounding, on this continent, 
the practice of our language that makes 
of this chapter in its history a new thing 
under the sun ; and I use that term as the 
best for expressing briefly ever so many 
striking actualities. If you reflect a mo- 
ment you will see how unprecedented is 
in fact this uncontrolled assault of most 
of our circumstances — and in the fore- 
front of them the common school and the 
newspaper — upon what we may call our 
linguistic position. Every language has its 
position, which, with its particular character 
and genius, is its most precious property 
— the element in it we are most moved (if 
we have any feeling in the connection at 
all) to respect, to confirm, to consecrate. 
What we least desire to do with these things 
is to give them, in our happy phrase, 
"away;" and we must allow that if this be 
none the less what has really happened in 
our case the reason for the disaster resides in 
40 



OUR SPEECH 

the seemingly overwhelming (for the time 
at least) forces of betrayal. To the Ameri- 
can common school, to the American news- 
paper, and to the American Dutchman 
and Dago, as the voice of the people de- 
scribes them, we have simply handed over 
our property — not exactly bound hand 
and foot, I admit, like Andromeda await- 
ing her Perseus, but at least distracted, 
dishevelled, despoiled, divested of that 
beautiful and becoming drapery of native 
atmosphere and circumstance which had, 
from far back, made, on its behalf, for 
practical protection, for a due tenderness of 
interest. 

I am perfectly aware that the common 
school and the newspaper are influences 
that shall often have been named to you, 
exactly, as favorable, as positively and 
actively contributive, to the prosperity of 
our idiom ; the answer to which is that the 
matter depends, distinctly, on what is meant 
by prosperity. It is prosperity, of a sort, 
41 



THE QUESTION OF 

that a hundred million people, a few years 
hence,will be unanimously, loudly — above 
all loudly, I think ! — speaking it, and that, 
moreover, many of these millions will have 
been artfully wooed and weaned from the 
Dutch, from the Spanish, from the Ger- 
man, from the Italian, from the Norse, 
from the Finnish, from the Yiddish even, 
strange to say, and (stranger still to say) 
even from the English, for the sweet sake, 
or the sublime consciousness, as we may 
perhaps put it, of speaking, of talking, for 
the first time in their lives, really at their 
ease. There are many things our now so 
profusely imported and, as is claimed, 
quickly assimilated foreign brothers and 
sisters may do at their ease in this coun- 
try, and at two minutes' notice, and without 
asking any one else's leave or taking any 
circumstance whatever into account — any 
save an infinite uplifting sense of freedom 
and facility ; but the thing they may best 
do is play, to their heart's content, with 
42 



OUR SPEECH 

the English language, or, in other words, 
dump their mountain of promiscuous ma- 
terial into the foundations of the American. 
As to any claim made for the newspapers, 
there would be far more to say than I can 
thus even remotely allude to ; it will suffice, 
however, if I just recall to you that con- 
tribution to the idea of expression which 
you must feel yourselves everywhere get- 
ting, wherever you turn, from the mere 
noisy vision of their ubiquitous page, bris- 
tling with rude effigies and images, with 
vociferous " headings," with letterings, with 
black eruptions of print, that we seem to 
measure by feet rather than by inches, and 
that affect us positively as the roar of some 
myriad-faced monster — as the grimaces, 
the shouts, shrieks and yells, ranging over 
the whole gamut of ugliness, irrelevance, 
dissonance, of a mighty maniac who has 
broken loose and who is running amuck 
through the spheres alike of sense and of 
sound. So it is, surely, that our wonderful 
43 



THE QUESTION OF 

daily press most vividly reads us the lesson 
oivaluesy of just proportion and just appre- 
ciation, lights the air for this question of 
our improvement. 

The truth is that, excellent for diffusion, 
for vulgarization, for simplification, the 
common schools and the " daily paper " 
define themselves before us as quite below 
the mark for discrimination and selection, 
for those finer offices of vigilance and crit- 
icism in the absence of which the forms 
of civility, with the forms of speech most 
setting the example, drift out to sea. Our 
case is accordingly not that we should in- 
dulge in jealousy, in care, less than other 
communities, but that we are the commu- 
nity in the world who should precisely 
most indulge in them. We should rather 
sit up at night with our preoccupation than 
close our eyes by day as well as by night. 
All the while we sleep the vast contingent 
of aliens whom we make welcome, and 
whose main contention, as I say, is that, 
44 



OUR SPEECH 

from the moment of their arrival, they have 
just as much property in our speech as we 
have, and just as good a right to do what 
they choose with it — the grand right of 
the American being to do just what he 
chooses " over here " with anything and 
everything: all the while we sleep the in- 
numerable aliens are sitting up {they don't 
sleep !) to work their will on their new in- 
heritance and prove to us that they are 
without any finer feeling or more conserva- 
tive instinct of consideration for it, more 
fond, unutterable association with it, more 
hovering, caressing curiosity about it, than 
they may have on the subject of so many 
yards of freely figured oilcloth, from the 
shop, that they are preparing to lay down, 
for convenience, on kitchen floor or kitchen 
staircase. Oilcloth is highly convenient, 
anfd our loud collective medium of inter- 
course doubtless strikes these new house- 
holders as wonderfully resisting " wear *' 
— with such wear as it gets ! — strikes 
45 



THE QUESTION OF 

them as an excellent bargain : durable, 
tough, cheap. 

Just here it is that I may be asked, 
meanwhile — or that you are likely to be 
asked in your turn, so far as you may be 
moved to make anything of these admoni- 
tions — whether a language be not always 
a living organism, fed by the very breath 
of those who employ it, whoever these 
may happen to be ; of those who carry it 
with them, on their long road, as their 
specific experience grows larger and more 
complex, and who need it to help them 
to meet this expansion. The question is 
whether it be not either no language at all, 
or only a very poor one, if it have not in 
it to respond, from its core, to the constant 
appeal of time, perpetually demanding 
new tricks, new experiments, new amuse- 
ments of it : so to respond without losing 
its characteristic balance. The answer to 
that is, a hundred times, " Yes,'* assuredly, 
so long as the conservative interest, which 
46 



OUR SPEECH 

should always predominate, remains, 
equally, the constant quantity ; remains 
an embodied, constituted, inexpugnable 
thing. The conservative interest is really 
as indispensable for the institution of 
speech as for the institution of matrimony. 
Abate a jot of the quantity, and, much 
more, of the quality, of the consecration 
required, and we practically find ourselves 
emulating the beasts, who prosper as well 
without a vocabulary as without a marriage- 
service. It is easier to overlook any ques- 
tion of speech than to trouble about it, 
but then it is also easier to snort or neigh, 
to growl or to " meaow," than to articu- 
late and intonate. 

With this hint, for you, of the manner 
in which the forces of looseness are in 
possession of the field, you may well won- 
der where you are to meet the influences 
of example and authority, as we can only 
call them, my failure to undertake to 
indicate some attesting presence of which 
47 



THE QUESTION OF 

would leave me in such sore straits. 
Well, I grant you here that I am at a loss 
to name you particular and unmistakable, 
edifying and illuminating groups or classes, 
from which this support is to be derived ; 
since nothing, unfortunately, more stares 
us in the face than the frequent failure 
of such comfort in those quarters where 
we might, if many things were different, 
most look for it. When you have heard 
a fond parent remark, in jealous majesty, 
to a conscientious instructor of youth, 
that there is no call for " interference " 
with the vocal noises of a loved son or 
daughter whose vocal noises have been 
unmoderated and uncontrolled since the 
day of birth, and that these graces quite 
satisfy the sense of the home-circle; and 
when, to match such an attitude, you have 
heard an unawakened teacher disclaim re- 
sponsibility for any such element as the 
tone-element and the voice-element in the 
forming of a young intelligence : when you 
48 



OUR SPEECH 

have been present at such phenomena you 
will not unnaturally feel that the case is 
bewildering, feel yourselves perhaps even 
tragically committed to a doom. Cling, 
none the less, always, to a working faith, 
and content yourselves — if you can't 
encounter complete pleasantly -speaking 
companies, in any number — with encoun- 
tering, blessedly, here and there, articu- 
late individuals, torch-bearers, as we may 
rightly describe them, guardians of the 
sacred flame. It is not a question, how- 
ever, so much of simply meeting them, 
as of attending to them, of making your 
profit of them, when you do meet. If 
they be at all adequate representatives of 
some decent tradition, you will find the 
interest of a new world, a whole extension 
of life, open to you in the attempt to 
estimate, in the habit of observing, in their 
speech, all that such a tradition consists 
of. Begin to exercise your attention on 
that, and let the consequences sink into 
49 



THE QUESTION OF 

your spirit. At first dimly, but then more 
and more distinctly, you will find your- 
selves noting, comparing, preferring, at 
last positively emulating and imitating. 

Imitating, yes; I commend to you, ear- 
nestly and without reserve, as the first re- 
sult and concomitant of observation, the 
imitation of formed and finished utterance 
wherever, among all the discords and de- 
ficiencies, that music steals upon your ear. 
The more you listen to it the more you 
will love it — the more you will wonder 
that you could ever have lived without it. 
What I thus urge upon you, you see, is 
a consciousness, an acute consciousness, 
absolutely ; which is a proposition and a 
name likely enough to raise among many 
of your friends a protest. " Conscious, imi- 
tative speech — is n't that more dreadful 
than anything else ? " It 's not "dreadful," 
I reply, any more than it 's ideal : the mat- 
ter depends on the stage of development 
it represents. It 's an awkwardness, in your 
50 



OUR SPEECH 

situation, that your own stage is an early- 
one, and that you have found, round about 
you — outside of these favoring shades — 
too little help. Therefore your conscious- 
ness will now represent the phase of awak- 
ening, and that will last what it must. 
Unconsciousness is beautiful when it means 
that our knowledge has passed into our 
conduct and our life; has become, as we say, 
a second nature. But the opposite state 
is the door through which it has to pass, 
and which is, inevitably, sometimes, rather 
straight and narrow. This squeeze is what 
we pay for having revelled too much in 
ignorance. Keep up your hearts, all the 
same, keep them up to the pitch of confi- 
dence in that " second nature " of which I 
speak ; the perfect possession of this high- 
est of the civilities, the sight, through the 
narrow portal, of the blue horizon across 
the valley, the wide fair country in which 
your effort will have settled to the most 
exquisite of instincts, in which you will taste 
51 



THE QUESTION OF OUR SPEECH 

all the savor of gathered fruit, and in which 
perhaps, at last, then^ "in solemn troops 
and sweet societies," you may, sounding 
the clearer notes of intercourse as only wo- 
men can, become yourselves models and 
missionaries, perhaps a little even martyrs, 
of the good cause. 



II 

THE LESSON OF BALZAC 



THE LESSON OF BALZAC 

I HAVE found it necessary, at the elev- 
enth hour, to sacrifice to the terrible 
question of time a very beautiful and ma- 
jestic approach that I had prepared to the 
subject on which I have the honor of ad- 
dressing you. I recognize it as impossible 
to ask you to linger with me on that pil- 
lared portico — paved with marble, I beg 
you to believe, and overtwined with charm- 
ing flowers. I must invite you to pass 
straight into the house and bear with me 
there as if I had already succeeded in be- 
ginning to interest you. Let us assume, 
therefore, that we have exchanged some 
ideas on the question of the beneficent 
play of criticism, and that I have even in- 
geniously struck it oflf that criticism is the 

^ Delivered for the first time before the Contem- 
porary Club of Philadelphia, January 12, 1905, and re- 
peated on various occasions elsewhere. Several passages 
omitted in delivery — one of considerable length — 
have been restored. 

55 



THE LESSON OF 

only gate of appreciation, just as appre- 
ciation is, in regard to a work of art, the 
only gate of enjoyment. You may won- 
der perhaps why I speak as if we were 
possessed, in our conditions, of a literary 
court of appeal, and I hasten to say that 
the appeal I think of is precisely from 
the general judgment, and not to it; is 
to the particular judgment altogether : by 
which I mean to that quantity of opinion, 
very small at all times, but at all times 
infinitely precious, that is capable of giv- 
ing some intelligible account of itself. 
Where, among us, at this time of day, this 
element of the lucid report of impressions 
received, of estimates formed, of inten- 
tions understood, of values attached, is 
exactly to be looked for — that is another 
branch of the question, to which I am 
afraid I should have to devote quite an- 
other discourse. I do not propose for a 
moment to invite you to blink the fact that 
our huge Anglo-Saxon array of producers 
56 



BALZAC 

and readers — and especially our vast cis- 
Atlantic multitude — presents production 
uncontrolled, production untouched by crit- 
icism, unguided, unlighted, uninstructed, 
unashamed, on a scale that is really a new 
thing in the world. It is all the complete 
reversal of any proportion, between the ele- 
ments, that was ever seen before. It is the 
biggest flock straying without shepherds, 
making its music without a sight of the 
classic crook, beribboned or other, without 
a sound of the sheepdog's bark — whole- 
some note, once in a way — that has ever 
found room for pasture. The very oppo- 
site has happened from what might have 
been expected to happen. The shepherds 
have diminished as the flock has increased 
— quite as if number and quantity had got 
beyond them, or even as if their charge 
had turned, by some uncanny process, to 
a pack of ravening wolves. Let us none 
the less assume that we may still find two 
or three of the fraternity hiding under a 
57 



THE LESSON OF 

hedge or astride of some upper limb of a 
tree ; let us even assume that if we set 
rightly, if we set tactfully about it, we may 
establish again some friendly connection 
with them. 

Putting, on this basis, then, all our heads 
together, we may become aware of an in- 
telligent gratitude, deep within our breasts, 
to any author who consents to fit with a cer- 
tain fulness of presence and squareness of 
solidity into one of the conscious catego- 
ries of our attention. There are literary fig- 
ures in plenty that scarce fill out even the 
smaller of these critical receptacles ; there 
are others, on the contrary, that almost 
strain the larger to breaking. It is to these 
latter that interested contemplation most 
fondly attaches itself — to that degree, 
really, that there seems, on any good occa- 
sion, more and more about them to be said. 
They have the great sign that their imme- 
diate presence causes our ideas, whether 
about life in general or about the art they 
58 



BALZAC 

have exemplified in particular, to revive 
and breathe again, to multiply, more or 
less to swarm. I must profess that no Nov- 
elist — since we are by common consent 
confining our attention to that great Com- 
pany — no Novelist, to my sense, so re- 
wards consideration as he or she (and I 
emphasize the liberality of my " she ") who 
off^ers the critical spirit this opportunity 
for a certain intensity of educative practice. 
The lesson of Balzac, whom we thus 
march straight up to, is that he oflfers it as 
no other members of the company can pre- 
tend to do. 

For there are members of the company 
who scarce produce the eflfect in question 
at all. Take, to begin with, close at Bal- 
zac's side, his illustrious contemporary 
Madame George Sand, so suggestive, so 
affirmative, so instructive, as a dealer with 
life, as an eloquent exponent of her own, as 
what we call to-day a Personality equipped 
and armed, but of an artistic complexion 
59 



THE LESSON OF 

SO comparatively smooth and simple, so 
happily harmonious, that her work, taken 
together, presents about as few pegs for 
analysis to hang upon as if it were a large, 
polished, gilded Easter egg, the pride 
of a sweet-shop if not the treasure of a 
museum. Let me add, further — so far 
as it is a question of the nameable sister- 
hood too — that Jane Austen, with all her 
light felicity, leaves us hardly more curious 
of her process, or of the experience in her 
that fed it, than the brown thrush who tells 
his story from the garden bough ; and this, 
I freely confess, in spite of her being one 
of those of the shelved and safe, for all 
time, of whom I should have liked to 
begin by talking ; one of those in whose 
favor discrimination has long since prac- 
tically operated. She is in fact a signal 
instance of the way it does, with all its 
embarrassments, at last infallibly operate. 
A sharp short cut, one of the sharpest and 
shortest achieved, in this field, by the gen- 
60 



BALZAC 

eral judgment, came out, betimes, straight 
at her feet. Practically overlooked for 
thirty or forty years after her death, she 
perhaps really stands there for us as the 
prettiest possible example of that rectifi- 
cation of estimate, brought about by some 
slow clearance of stupidity, the half-cen- 
tury or so is capable of working round to. 
This tide has risen high on the opposite 
shore, the shore of appreciation — risen 
rather higher, I think, than the high-water 
mark, the highest, of her intrinsic merit 
and interest; though I grant indeed — as 
a point to be made — that we are dealing 
here in some degree with the tides so freely 
driven up, beyond their mere logical reach, 
by the stiff breeze of the commercial, in 
other words of the special bookselling 
spirit; an eager, active, interfering force 
which has a great many confusions of ap- 
parent value, a great many wild and wan- 
dering estimates, to answer for. For these 
distinctively mechanical and overdone reac- 
6i 



THE LESSON OF 

tions, of course, the critical spirit, even in 
its most relaxed mood, is not responsible. 
Responsible, rather, is the body of pub- 
lishers, editors, illustrators, producers of 
the pleasant twaddle of magazines ; who 
have found their "dear," our dear, every- 
body's dear, Jane so infinitely to their 
material purpose, so amenable to pretty 
reproduction in every variety of what is 
called tasteful, and in what seemingly 
proves to be saleable, form. 

I do not, naturally, mean that she 
would be saleable if we had not more or 
less — beginning with Macaulay, her first 
slightly ponderous amoroso — lost our 
hearts to her; but I cannot help seeing 
her, a good deal, as in the same lucky box 
as the Brontes — lucky for the ultimate 
guerdon ; a case of popularity (that in es- 
pecial of the Yorkshire sisters), a beguiled 
infatuation, a sentimentalized vision, de- 
termined largely by the accidents and 
circumstances originally surrounding the 
62 



BALZAC 

manifestation of the genius — only with 
the reasons for the sentiment, in this latter 
connection, turned the other way. The 
key to Jane Austen's fortune with poster- 
ity has been in part the extraordinary grace 
of her facility, in fact of her unconscious- 
ness : as if, at the most, for difficulty, for 
embarrassment, she sometimes, over her 
work-basket, her tapestry flowers, in the 
spare, cool drawing-room of other days, 
fell a-musing, lapsed too metaphorically, 
as one may say, into wool-gathering, and 
her dropped stitches, of these pardonable, 
of these precious moments, were afterwards 
picked up as little touches of human truth, 
little glimpses of steady vision, little mas- 
ter-strokes of imagination. The romantic 
tradition of the Brontes, with posterity, has 
been still more essentially helped, I think, 
by a force independent of any one of their 
applied faculties — by the attendant image 
of their dreary, their tragic history, their 
loneliness and poverty of life. That picture 

63 



THE LESSON OF 

has been made to hang before us as insist- 
ently as the vividest page of " Jane Eyre '' 
or of "Wuthering Heights." If these 
things were ^^ stories/' as we say, and sto- 
ries of a lively interest, the medium from 
which they sprang was above all in itself a 
story, such a story as has fairly elbowed 
out the rights of appreciation, as has come 
at last to impose itself as an expression of 
the power concerned. The personal posi- 
tion of the three sisters, of the two in par- 
ticular, had been marked, in short, with 
so sharp an accent that this accent has be- 
come for us the very tone of their united 
production. It covers and supplants their 
matter, their spirit, their style, their talent, 
their taste ; it embodies, really, the most 
complete intellectual muddle, if the term 
be not extravagant, ever achieved, on a 
literary question, by our wonderful public. 
The question has scarce indeed been ac- 
cepted as belonging to literature at all. 
Literature is an objective, a projected re- 
64 



BALZAC 

suit ; it is life that is the unconscious, the 
agitated, the struggling, floundering cause. 
But the fashion has been, in looking at the 
Brontes, so to confound the cause with the 
result that we cease to know, in the pre- 
sence of such ecstasies, what we have hold 
of or what we are talking about. They 
represent, the ecstasies, the highwater mark 
of sentimental judgment. 

These are but glimmering lanterns, how- 
ever, you will say, to hang in the great 
dusky and deserted avenue that leads up 
to the seated statue of Balzac; and you are 
so far right, I am bound to admit, as that I 
place them there, no doubt, in a great mea- 
sure, just to render the darkness visible. 
We do, collectively, with all our dimness 
of view, arrive at rough discriminations, 
and by one of the roughest of these the 
author of the "Comedie Humaine"has 
in a manner profited ; we have for many a 
year taken his greatness for granted ; but 
in the graceless and nerveless fashion of 

65 



THE LESSON OF 

those who edge away from a classic or a 
bore. " Oh, yes, he is as ^ great ' as you 
like — so let us not talk of him ! " My 
purpose has been to " talk " of him, and I 
find this form of greeting, therefore, and 
still more this form of parting, not at all 
adequate ; failing as I do to point my moral 
unless I show that a really paying acquaint- 
ance with a writer can never take place if 
our recognition remains perfunctory. Our 
indolence and our ignorance may prefer 
the empty form ; but the penalty and the 
humiliation come for us with the percep- 
tion that when the consecration really takes 
place we have been excluded, so to speak, 
from the fun. I see no better proof that 
the great interesting art of which Balzac 
remains the greatest master is practically, 
round about us, a bankrupt and discredited 
art (discredited, of course I mean, for any 
directed and motived attention), than this 
very fact that we are so ready to beg off 
from knowing anything about him. Per- 
66 



BALZAC 

functory rites, even, at present, are seldom 
rendered ; and, amid the flood of verbiage 
for which the thousand new novels of the 
season find themselves a pretext in the 
newspapers, the name of the man who is 
really the father of us all, as we stand, is 
scarcely more mentioned than if he were 
not of the family. 

I may at once intimate that the family 
strikes me as likely to recover its wasted 
heritage, and pull itself together for another 
chance, on condition only of shutting itself 
up, for an hour of wholesome heart-search- 
ing, with the image of its founder. He 
labors, I know, under the drawback of not 
being presentable as a classic — which is 
precisely why there would have seemed to 
be the less furtherance for regarding him as 
a bore. His situation in this respect is all 
his own : it was not given him to flower, 
for our convenience, into a single supreme 
felicity. His " successes " hang so together 
that analysis is almost baffled by his con- 

67 



THE LESSON OF 

sistency, by his density. Even " Eugenie 
Grandet " is not a supreme felicity in the 
sense that this particular bloom is detach- 
able from the cluster. The cluster is too 
thick, the stem too tough ; before we know 
it, when we begin to pull, we have the whole 
branch about our heads — or it would in- 
deed be more just to say we have the whole 
tree, if not the whole forest. It tells against 
a great worker, for free reference, that we 
must take his work in the mass ; for, un- 
fortunately, the circumstance that nothing 
of it surpassingly stands forth to repre- 
sent the rest, to symbolize the whole, sug- 
gests a striking resemblance to work of 
other sorts. Of the mediocrities, and the 
bunglers too is it true that they do not 
supremely flower — as well as, further, of 
certain happy geniuses who have flowed 
in an uncontrolled, an undirected, above 
all in an unfiltered, current. 

But the difi^erenee is that, for the most 
part, these loose and easy producers, the 
68 



BALZAC 

great resounding improvisatori, have not, 
in general, ended by imposing themselves ; 
when we deal with them conclusively and, 
as I have said, for clearance of the slate, 
we deal with them by simplification, by 
elimination : which may very well be the 
revenge that time takes upon them to make 
up for the amount of space they happened 
immediately to occupy. They are still 
there, evidently ; but they are there under 
this condition, which enters into account, 
at every instant, in any pious inquiry about 
them, and which is attached, intimately, to 
the appearance they finally wear for us, that 
the looseness and ease showing as their 
main sign in the time of their freshness is 
now a quality still more striking and often 
still more disconcerting. The weak sides 
in an artist are weakened with time, and 
the strong sides strengthened ; so that it is 
never amiss, for duration, to have as many 
strong sides as possible. It is the only way 
we have yet made out — even in this age 

69 



THE LESSON OF 

of superlative study of the cheap and easy 
— not to have so many weak ones as will 
eventually betray us. Balzac stands almost 
alone as an extemporizer achieving close- 
ness and weight, and whom closeness and 
weight have preserved. My reason for 
speaking of him as an extemporizer I shall 
presently mention ; but let me meanwhile 
frankly say that I speak of him, and can 
only speak, as a man of his own craft, an 
emulous fellow-worker, who has learned 
from him more of the lessons of the en- 
gaging mystery of fiction than from any 
one else, and who is conscious of so large 
a debt to repay that it has had positively 
to be discharged in instalments, as if one 
could never have at once all the required 
cash in hand. 

When I am tempted, on occasion, to 
ask myself why we should, after all, so 
much as talk about the Novel, the wanton 
fable, against which, in so many ways, so 
showy an indictment may be drawn, I seem 
70 



BALZAC 

to see that the simplest plea is not to 
be sought in any attempted philosophy, 
in any abstract reason for our perversity 
or our levity. The real gloss upon these 
things is reflected from some great practi- 
tioner, some concrete instance of the art, 
some ample cloak under which we may 
gratefully crawl. It comes back, of course, 
to the example and the analogy of the 
Poet — with the abatement, however, that 
the Poet is most the Poet when he is 
preponderantly lyrical, when he speaks, 
laughing or crying, most directly from his 
individual heart, which throbs under the 
impressions of life. It is not the image of 
life that he thus expresses, so much as life 
itself, in its sources — so much as his own 
intimate, essential states and feelings. By 
the time he has begun to collect anecdotes, 
to tell stories, to represent scenes, to con- 
cern himself, that is, with the states and 
feelings of others, he is well on the way 
not to be the Poet pure and simple. The 
71 



THE LESSON OF 

lyrical element, all the same, abides in him, 
and it is by this element that he is con- 
nected with what is most splendid in his 
expression. The lyrical instinct and tra- 
dition are immense in Shakespeare ; which 
is why, great story-teller, great dramatist 
and painter, great lover, in short, of the 
image of life though he was, we need not 
press the case of his example. The lyrical 
element is not great, is in fact not present 
at all, in Balzac, in Scott (the Scott of the 
voluminous prose), nor in Thackeray, nor 
in Dickens — which is precisely why they 
are so essentially novelists, so almost ex- 
clusively lovers of the image of life. It is 
great, or it is at all events largely present, 
in such a writer as George Sand — which 
is doubtless why we take her for a novelist 
in a much looser sense than the others we 
have named. It is considerable in that bright 
particular genius of our own day, George 
Meredith, who so strikes us as hitching 
winged horses to the chariot of his prose 
72 



BALZAC 

— Steeds who prance and dance and cara- 
cole, who strain the traces, attempt to quit 
the ground, and yearn for the upper air. 
Balzac, with huge feet fairly ploughing the 
sand of our desert, is on the other hand 
the very type and model of the projector 
and creator ; so that when I think, either 
with envy or with terror, of the nature and 
the effort of the Novelist, I think of some- 
thing that reaches its highest expression 
in him. That is why those of us who, 
as fellow-craftsmen, have once caught a 
glimpse of this value in him, can never 
quite rest from hanging about him ; that 
is why he seems to have all that the others 
have to tell us, with more, besides, that is 
all his own. He lived and breathed in his 
medium, and the fact that he was able to 
achieve in it, as man and as artist, so 
crowded a career, remains for us one of 
the most puzzling problems — I scarce 
know whether to say of literature or of 
life. He is himself a figure more extraor- 
73 



THE LESSON OF 

dinary than any he drew, and the fascina- 
tion may still be endless of all the ques- 
tions he puts to us and of the answers for 
which we feel ourselves helpless. 

He died, as we sufficiently remember, at 
fifty — worn out with work and thought 
and passion ; the passion, I mean, that he 
had put into his mighty plan and that had 
ridden him like an infliction of the gods. 
He began, a friendless and penniless young 
provincial, to write early, and to write very 
badly, and it was not till well toward his 
thirtieth year, with the conception of the 
" Comedie Humaine," as we all again re- 
member, that he found his right ground, 
found his feet and his voice. This huge 
distributed, divided and sub-divided pic- 
ture of the life of France in his time, a 
picture bristling with imagination and in- 
formation, with fancies and facts and 
figures, a world of special and general in- 
sight, a rank tropical forest of detail and 
specification, but with the strong breath of 
74 



BALZAC 

genius forever circulating through it and 
shaking the treetops to a mighty murmur, 
got itself hung before us in the space of 
twenty short years. The achievement re- 
mains one of the most inscrutable, one of 
the unfathomable, final facts in the history 
of art, and if, as I have said, the author 
himself has his own surpassing objectivity, 
it is just because of this challenge his figure 
constitutes for any other painter of life, in- 
flamed with ingenuity, who should feel the 
temptation to represent or explain him. 
How represent, how explain him, as a con- 
crete active energy ? How depict him, we 
ask ourselves, at his huge conceived and 
accepted task, how reconcile such dissem- 
ination with such intensity, the collection 
and possession of so vast a number of facts 
with so rich a presentation of each ? The 
elements of the world he set up before us, 
with all its insistent particulars, these ele- 
ments were not, for him, a direct revelation 
— of so large a part of life is it true that 
75 



THE LESSON OF 

we can know it only by living, and that liv- 
ing is the process that, in our mortal span, 
makes the largest demand on our time. 
How could a man have lived at large so 
much if, in the service of art, he had so 
much abstracted and condensed himself? 
How could he have so much abstracted 
and condensed himself if, in the service of 
life, he had felt and fought and acted, had 
labored and suffered, so much as a private 
in the ranks ? The wealth and strength of 
his temperament indeed partly answer the 
question and partly obscure it. He could 
so extend his existence partly because he 
vibrated to so many kinds of contact and 
curiosity. To vibrate intellectually was his 
motive, but it magnified, all the while, it 
multiplied his experience. He could live 
at large, in short, because he was always 
living in the particular necessary, the par- 
ticular intended connection — was always 
astride of his imagination, always charging, 
with his heavy, his heroic lance in rest, at 

76 



BALZAC 

every object that sprang up in his path. 
But as he was at the same time always 
fencing himself in against the personal ad- 
venture, the personal experience, in order to 
preserve himself for converting it into his- 
tory, how did experience, in the immediate 
sense, still get itself saved ? — or, to put it 
as simply as possible, where, with so stren- 
uous a conception of the use of material, 
was material itself so strenuously quarried? 
Out of what mines, by what innumerable 
tortuous channels, in what endless wind- 
ing procession of laden chariots and tug- 
ging teams and marching elephants, did the 
immense consignments required for his 
work reach him? 

The point at which the emulous admirer, 
however diminished by comparison, may 
most closely approach him is, it seems to 
me, through the low portal of envy, so ir- 
resistibly do we lose ourselves in the vision 
of the quantity of life with which his im- 
agination communicated. Quantity and in* 
11 



THE LESSON OF 

tensity are at once and together his sign ; 
the truth being that his energy did not 
press hard in some places only to press 
lightly in others, did not lay it on thick 
here or there to lay it on thin elsewhere, 
did not seek the appearance of extent and 
number by faintness of evocation, by shal- 
low soundings, or by the mere sketchiness 
of suggestion that dispenses, for reference 
and verification, with the book, the total 
collection of human documents, with what 
we call "chapter and verse." He never 
throws dust in our eyes, save only the fine 
gold-dust through the haze of which his 
own romantic vision operates ; never does 
it, I mean, when he is pretending not to 
do it, pretending to give us the full state- 
ment of his case, to deal with the facts of 
the spectacle surrounding him. Then he 
goes in, as we say, for a portentous clearness, 
a reproduction of the real on the scale of 
the real — with a definiteness actually pro- 
portionate ; though a clearness that in truth 

78 



BALZAC 

sometimes fails (like the sight of the forest 
of the adage, which fails for the presence 
of the trees), through the positive mon- 
strosity of his effort. He sees and presents 
too many facts — facts of history, of pro- 
perty, of genealogy, of topography, of so- 
ciology, and has too many ideas and images 
about them ; their value is thus threatened 
with submersion by the flood of general 
reference in which they float, by their quan- 
tity of indicated relation to other facts, 
which break against them like waves of a 
high tide. He may thus at times become 
obscure from his very habit of striking too 
many matches; or we may at least say of 
him, out of our wondering loyalty, that the 
light he produces is, beyond that of any 
other corner of the great planted garden 
of romance, thick and rich and heavy — 
interesting, so to speak, on its own account. 
There would be much to say, I think, 
had we only a little more time, on this 
question of the projected light of the in- 
79 



THE LESSON OF 

dividual strong temperament in fiction — 
the color of the air with which this, that 
or the other painter of life (as we call them 
all), more or less unconsciously suffuses 
his picture. I say unconsciously because 
I speak here of an effect of atmosphere 
largely, if not wholly, distinct from the 
effect sought on behalf of the special sub- 
ject to be treated; something that proceeds 
from the contemplative mind itself, the 
very complexion of the mirror in which 
the material is reflected. This is of the 
nature of the man himself — an emanation 
of his spirit, temper, history ; it springs 
from his very presence, his spiritual pre- 
sence, in his work, and is, in so far, not a 
matter of calculation and artistry. All a 
matter of his own, in a word, for each seer 
of visions, the particular tone of the me- 
dium in which each vision, each clustered 
group of persons and places and objects, 
is bathed. Just how, accordingly, does the 
light of the world, the projected, painted, 
80 



BALZAC 

peopled, poetized, realized world, the fur- 
nished and fitted world into which we are 
beguiled for the holiday excursions, cheap 
trips or dear, of the eternally amusable, 
eternally dupeable voyaging mind — just 
how does this strike us as different in 
Fielding and in Richardson, in Scott and 
in Dumas, in Dickens and in Thackeray, 
in Hawthorne and in Meredith, in George 
Eliot and in George Sand, in Jane Austen 
and in Charlotte Bronte ? Do we not feel 
the general landscape evoked by each of 
the more or less magical wands to which 
I have given name, not to open itself un- 
der the same sun that hangs over the 
neighboring scene, not to receive the solar 
rays at the same angle, not to exhibit its 
shadows with the same intensity or the 
same sharpness ; not, in short, to seem to 
belong to the same time of day or same 
state of the weather ? Why is it that the 
life that overflows in Dickens seems to me 
always to go on in the morning, or in the 
gi 



THE LESSON OF 

very earliest hours of the afternoon at 
most, and in a vast apartment that appears 
to have windows, large, uncurtained and 
rather unwashed windows, on all sides at 
once ? Why is it that in George Eliot the 
sun sinks forever to the west, and the 
shadows are long, and the afternoon wanes, 
and the trees vaguely rustle, and the color 
of the day is much inclined to yellow ? 
Why is it that in Charlotte Bronte we 
move through an endless autumn ? Why 
is it that in Jane Austen we sit quite re- 
signed in an arrested spring ? Why does 
Hawthorne give us the afternoon hour 
later than any one else ? — oh, late, late, 
quite uncannily late, and as if it were al- 
ways winter outside ? But I am wasting 
the very minutes I pretended, at the start, 
to cherish, and am only sustained through 
my levity by seeing you watch for the time 
of day or season of the year or state of the 
weather that I shall fasten upon the com- 
plicated clock-face of Thackeray. I do, I 
82 



BALZAC 

think, see his light also — see it very much 
as the light (a different thing from the 
mere dull dusk) of rainy days in " resi- 
dential " streets ; but we are not, after all, 
talking of him, and, though Balzac's 
waiting power has proved itself, this half- 
century, immense, I must not too much 
presume upon it. 

The question of the color of Balzac's air 
and the time of his day would indeed here 
easily sohcit our ingenuity — were I at 
liberty to say more than one thing about 
it. It is rich and thick, the mixture of sun 
and shade diffused through the " Comedie 
Humaine " — a mixture richer and thicker, 
and representing an absolutely greater 
quantity of " atmosphere," than we shall 
find prevailing within the compass of any 
other suspended frame. That is how we 
see him, living in his garden, and it is by 
reason of the restless energy with which 
he circulated there that I hold his fortune 
and his privilege, in spite of the burden of 

83 



THE LESSON OF 

his toil and the brevity of his immediate re- 
ward, to have been before any others envi- 
able. It is strange enough, but what most 
abides with us, as we follow his steps, is a 
sense of the intellectual luxury he enjoyed. 
To focus him at all, for a single occasion, 
we have to simphfy, and this wealth of his 
vicarious experience forms the side, more- 
over, on which he is most attaching for 
those who take an interest in the real play 
of the imagination. From the moment our 
imagination plays at all, of course, and from 
the moment we try to catch and preserve 
the pictures it throws off, from that mo- 
ment we too, in our comparatively feeble 
way, live vicariously — succeed in opening 
a series of dusky passages in which, with 
a more or less childlike ingenuity, we can 
romp to and fro. Our passages are mainly 
short and dark, however ; we soon come 
to the end of them — dead walls, without 
resonance, in presence of which the candle 
goes out and the game stops, and we have 

84 



BALZAC 

only to retrace our steps. Balzac's luxury, 
as I call it, was in the extraordinary num- 
ber and length of his radiating and rami- 
fying corridors — the labyrinth in which 
he finally lost himself. What it comes 
back to, in other words, is the intensity 
with which we live — and his intensity 
is recorded for us on every page of his 
work. 

It is a question, you see, oi penetrating 
into a subject ; his corridors always went 
further and further and further ; which 
is but another way of expressing his in- 
ordinate passion for detail. It matters 
nothing — nothing for my present conten- 
tion — that this extravagance is also his 
great fault ; in spite, too, of its all being 
detail vivified and related, characteristic 
and constructive, essentially prescribed by 
the terms of his plan. The relations of 
parts to each other are at moments multi- 
plied almost to madness — which is at the 
same time just why they give us the mea- 
85 



THE LESSON OF 

sure of his hallucination, make up the 
greatness of his intellectual adventure. His 
plan was to handle, primarily, not a world 
of ideas, animated by figures representing 
these ideas ; but the packed and consti- 
tuted, the palpable, proveable world before 
him, by the study of which ideas would 
inevitably find themselves thrown up. If 
the happy fate is accordingly to partake 
of life, actively, assertively, not passively, 
narrowly, in mere sensibility and suffer- 
ance, the happiness has been greatest when 
the faculty employed has been largest. 
We employ different faculties — some of 
us only our arms and our legs and our 
stomach ; Balzac employed most what he 
possessed in largest quantity. This is where 
his work ceases in a manner to mystify us 
— this is where we make out how he did 
quarry his material : it is the sole solution 
to an otherwise baffling problem. He col- 
lected his experience within himself: no 
other economy explains his achievement ; 
86 



BALZAC 

this thrift alone, remarkable yet think- 
able, embodies the necessary miracle. His 
system of cellular confinement, in the in- 
terest of the miracle, was positively that 
of a Benedictine monk leading his life 
within the four walls of his convent and 
bent, the year round, over the smooth 
parchment on which, with wondrous illu- 
mination and enhancement of gold and 
crimson and blue, he inscribes the glories 
of the faith and the legends of the saints. 
Balzac's view of himself was indeed in a 
manner the monkish one ; he was most at 
ease, while he wrought, in the white gown 
and cowl — an image of him that the 
friendly art of his time has handed down 
to us. Only, as happened, his subject of 
illumination was the legends not merely 
of the saints, but of the much more numer- 
ous uncanonized strugglers and sinners, 
an acquaintance with whose attributes was 
not all to be gathered in the place of piety 
itself; not even from the faintest ink of 

87 



THE LESSON OF 

old records, the mild lips of old brothers, 
or the painted glass of church windows. 

This is where envy does follow him, 
for to have so many other human cases, 
so many other personal predicaments to 
get into, up to one's chin, is verily to be 
able to get out of one's own box. And it 
was up to his chin, constantly, that he 
sank in his illusion — not, as the weak 
and timid in this line do, only up to his 
ankles or his knees. The figures he sees 
begin immediately to bristle with all their 
characteristics. Every mark and sign, 
outward and inward, that they possess ; 
every virtue and every vice, every strength 
and every weakness, every passion and , 
every habit, the sound of their voices, the 
expression of their eyes, the tricks of fea- 
ture and limb, the buttons on their clothes, 
the food on their plates, the money in 
their pockets, the furniture in their houses, 
the secrets in their breasts, are all things 
that interest, that concern, that command 



BALZAC 

him, and that have, for the picture, sig- 
nificance, relation and value. It is a 
prodigious multiplication of values, and 
thereby a prodigious entertainment of 
the vision — on the condition the vision 
can bear it. Bearing it — that is our bear- 
ing it — is a serious matter ; for the ap- 
peal is truly to that faculty of attention 
out of which we are educating ourselves 
as hard as we possibly can ; educating our- 
selves with such complacency, with such 
boisterous high spirits, that we may al- 
ready be said to have practically lost it 
— with the consequence that any work 
of art or of criticism making a demand on 
it is by that fact essentially discredited. 
It takes attention not only to thread the 
labyrinth of the " Comedie Humaine," but 
to keep our author himself in view, in the 
relations in which we thus image him. 
But if we can muster it, as I say, in suffi- 
cient quantity, we thus walk with him in 
the great glazed gallery of his thought ; 

89 



THE LESSON OF 

the long, lighted and pictured ambulatory 
where the endless series of windows, on 
one side, hangs over his revolutionized, 
ravaged, yet partly restored and reinstated 
garden of France, and where, on the 
other, the figures and the portraits we 
fancy stepping down to meet him climb 
back into their frames, larger and smaller, 
and take up position and expression as 
he desired they shall look out and com- 
pose. 

We have lately had a literary case of the 
same general family as the case of Balzac, 
and in presence of which some of the 
same speculations come up : I had occa- 
sion, not long since, after the death of 
Emile Zola, to attempt an appreciation of 
his extraordinary performance — his series 
of the " Rougon-Macquart " constitut- 
ing in fact, in the library of the fiction that 
can hope in some degree to live, a monu- 
ment to the idea of plenitude, of compre- 
hension and variety, second only to the 
90 



BALZAC 

" Comedie Humaine." The question pre- 
sented itself, in respect to Zola's ability and 
Zola's career, with a different proportion 
and value, I quite recognize, and wearing 
a much less distinguished face ; but it was 
there to be met, none the less, on the 
very threshold, and all the more because 
this was just where he himself had placed 
it. His idea had been, from the first, in a 
word, to lose no time — as if one could 
have experience, even the mere amount 
requisite for showing others as having it, 
without losing time ! — and yet the de- 
gree in which he too, so handicapped, has 
achieved valid expression is such as still 
to stagger us. He had had inordinately 
to simplify — had had to leave out the 
life of the soul, practically, and confine 
himself to the life of the instincts, of the 
more immediate passions, such as can be 
easily and promptly caught in the fact. 
He had had, in a word, to confine him- 
self almost entirely to the impulses and 
91 



THE LESSON OF 

agitations that men and women are pos- 
sessed by in common, and to take them 
as exhibited in mass and number, so that, 
being writ larger, they might likewise be 
more easily read. He met and solved, in 
this manner, his difficulty — the difficulty 
of knowing, and of showing, of life, only 
what his " notes " would account for. 
But it is in the waste^ I think, much 
rather — the waste of time, of passion, of 
curiosity, of contact — that true initiation 
resides ; so that the most wonderful ad- 
ventures of the artist's spirit are those, 
immensely quickening for his " authority," 
that are yet not reducible to his notes. It 
is exactly here that we get the difference 
between such a solid, square, symmetrical 
structure as " Les Rougon-Macquart," viti- 
ated, in a high degree, by its mechanical 
side, and the monument left by Balzac — 
without the example of which, I surmise, 
Zola's work would not have existed. The 
mystic process of the crucible, the trans- 
92 



BALZAC 

formation of the material under aesthetic 
heat, is, in the " Comedie Humaine/' 
thanks to an intenser and more submissive 
fusion, completer, and also finer ; for if the 
commoner and more wayside passions and 
conditions are, in the various episodes 
there, at no time gathered into so large 
and so thick an illustrative bunch, yet on 
the other hand they are shown much more 
freely at play in the individual case — and 
the individual case it is that permits of 
supreme fineness. It is hard to say where 
Zola is fine ; whereas it is often, for pages 
together, hard to say where Balzac is, 
even under the weight of his too ponder- 
ous personality, not. The most funda- 
mental and general sign of the novel, 
from one desperate experiment to another, 
is its being everywhere an eflFort at repre- 
sentation — this is the beginning and the 
end of it : wherefore it was that one could 
say at last, with account taken of every- 
thing, that Zola's performance, on his im- 
93 



THE LESSON OF 

mense scale, was an extraordinary show 
of representation imitated. The imitation 
in places — notably and admirably, for 
instance, in " L'Assommoir " — breaks 
through into something that we take for 
reality ; but, for the most part, the separat- 
ing rift, the determining difference, holds 
its course straight, prevents the attempted 
process from becoming the sound, straight, 
whole thing that is given us by those who 
have really bought their information. This 
is where Balzac remains unshaken — in our 
feeling that, with all his faults of pedantry, 
ponderosity, pretentiousness, bad taste and 
charmless form, his spirit has somehow 
paid for its knowledge. His subject is 
again and again the complicated human 
creature or human condition ; and it is 
with these complications as if he knew 
them, as Shakespeare knew them, by his 
charged consciousness, by the history of 
his soul and the direct exposure of his 
sensibility. This source of supply he 
94 



BALZAC 

found, forever — and one may indeed say 
he mostly left — sitting at his fireside ; 
where it constituted the company with 
which I see him shut up and his practical 
intimacy with which, during such orgies 
and debauches of intellectual passion, 
might earn itself that name of high per- 
sonal good fortune that I have applied. 

Let me say, definitely, that I hold sev- 
eral of his faults to be grave, and that if 
there were any question of time for it I 
should like to speak of them ; but let me 
add, as promptly, that they are faults, on 
the whole, of execution, flaws in the cast- 
ing, accidents of the process : they never 
come back to that fault in the artist, in the 
novelist, that amounts most completely 
to a failure of dignity, the absence of 
saturation with his idea. When saturation 
fails no other presence really avails ; as 
when, on the other hand, it operates, no 
failure of method fatally interferes. There 
is never in Balzac that damning interfer- 
95 



THE LESSON OF 

ence which consists of the painter's not see- 
ing, not possessing, his image ; not having 
fixed his creature and his creature's condi- 
tions. " Balzac aime sa Valerie," says 
Taine, in his great essay — so much the 
finest thing ever written on our author — 
speaking of the way in which the awful 
little Madame Marneffe of "Les Parents 
Pauvres " is drawn, and of the long rope, 
for her acting herself out, that her creator's 
participation in her reality assures her. 
He has been contrasting her, as it happens, 
with Thackeray's Becky Sharp or rather 
with Thackeray's attitude toward Becky, 
and the marked jealousy of her freedom 
that Thackeray exhibits from the first. I 
remember reading at the time of the pub- 
lication of Taine's study — though it was 
long, long ago — a phrase in an English 
review of the volume which seemed to 
my limited perception, even in extreme 
youth, to deserve the highest prize ever 
bestowed on critical stupidity undisguised. 
96 



BALZAC 

If Balzac loved his Valerie, said this com- 
mentator, that only showed Balzac's ex- 
traordinary taste ; the truth being really, 
throughout, that it was just through this 
love of each seized identity, and of the 
sharpest and liveliest identities most, that 
Madame MarnefFe's creator was able to 
marshal his array at all. The love, as we 
call it, the joy in their communicated and 
exhibited movement, in their standing on 
their feet and going of themselves and 
acting out their characters, was what ren- 
dered possible the saturation I speak of; 
what supplied him, through the inevitable 
gaps of his preparation and the crevices 
of his prison, his long prison of labor, a 
short cut to the knowledge he required. 
It was by loving them — as the terms of 
his subject and the nuggets of his mine — 
that he knew them ; it was not by know- 
ing them that he loved. 

He at all events robustly loved the 
sense of another explored, assumed, as- 
97 



THE LESSON OF 

similated identity — enjoyed it as the hand 
enjoys the glove when the glove ideally 
fits. My image indeed is loose; for what 
he liked was absolutely to get into the con- 
stituted consciousness, into all the clothes, 
gloves and whatever else, into the very 
skin and bones, of the habited, featured, 
colored, articulated form of life that he 
desired to present. How do we know 
given persons, for any purpose of demon- 
stration, unless we know their situation 
for themselves, unless we see it from their 
point of vision, that is from their point 
of pressing consciousness or sensation ? — 
without our allowing for which there is 
no appreciation. Balzac loved his Valerie 
then as Thackeray did not love his Becky, 
or his Blanche Amory in "Pendennis." But 
his prompting was not to expose her ; it 
could only be, on the contrary — intensely 
aware as he was of all the lengths she might 
go, and paternally, maternally alarmed 
about them — to cover her up and pro- 
98 



BALZAC 

tect her, in the interest of her special genius 
and freedom. All his impulse was to la 
faire valoir^ to give her all her value, just 
as Thackeray's attitude was the opposite 
one, a desire positively to expose and dese- 
crate poor Becky — to follow her up, catch 
her in the act and bring her to shame : 
though with a mitigation, an admiration, 
an inconsequence, now and then wrested 
from him by an instinct finer, in his mind, 
than the so-called ^^ moral" eagerness. 
The English writer wants to make sure, 
first of all, of your moral judgment ; the 
French is willing, while it waits a little, to 
risk, for the sake of his subject and its 
interest, your spiritual salvation. Ma- 
dame Marneffe, detrimental, fatal as she 
is, is " exposed," so far as anything in life, 
or in art, may be, by the working-out of 
the situation and the subject themselves ; 
so that when they have done what they 
would, what they logically had to, with 
her, we are ready to take it from them. 
99 



THE LESSON OF 

We do not feel, very irritatedly, very lec- 
turedly, in other words with superfluous 
edification, that she has been sacrificed. 
Who can say, on the contrary, that Blanche 
Amory, in " Pendennis," with the author's 
lash about her little bare white back from 
the first — who can feel that she has not 
been sacrificed, or that her little bareness 
and whiteness, and all the rest of her, 
have been, by such a process, presented 
as they had a right to demand ? 

It all comes back, in fine, to that respect 
for the liberty of the subject which I should 
be wilHng to name as the great sign of the 
painter of the first order. Such a witness to 
the human comedy fairly holds his breath 
for fear of arresting or diverting that natural 
license ; the witness who begins to breathe 
so uneasily in presence of it that his respi- 
ration not only warns off^ the little prowl- 
ing or playing creature he is supposed to 
be studying, but drowns, for our ears, the 
ingenuous sounds of the animal, as well as 

100 



BALZAC 

the general, truthful hum of the human 
scene at large — this demonstrator has no 
sufficient warrant for his task. And if such 
an induction as this is largely the moral 
of our renewed glance at Balzac, there is 
a lesson, of a more essential sort, I think, 
folded still deeper within — the lesson that 
there is no convincing art that is not ruin- 
ously expensive. I am unwilling to say, 
in the presence of such of his successors 
as George Eliot and Tolstoi and Zola (to 
name, for convenience, only three of them), 
that he was the last of the novelists to do 
the thing handsomely ; but I will say that 
we get the impression at least of his hav- 
ing had more to spend. Many of those 
who have followed him affect us as doing 
it, in the vulgar phrase, " on the cheap ; " 
by reason mainly, no doubt, of their hav- 
ing been, all helplessly, foredoomed to 
cheapness. Nothing counts, of course, in 
art, but the excellent ; nothing exists, 
however briefly, for estimation, for appre- 

lOI 



THE LESSON OF 

elation, but the superlative — always in its 
kind ; and who shall declare that the se- 
vere economy of the vast majority of those 
apparently emulous of the attempt to "ren- 
der" the human subject and the human 
scene proceeds from anything worse than 
the consciousness of a limited capital ? 
This flourishing frugality operates happily, 
no doubt — given all the circumstances — 
for the novelist ; but it has had terrible 
results for the novel, so far as the novel is 
a form with which criticism may be moved 
to concern itself Its misfortune, its dis- 
credit, what I have called its bankrupt 
state among us, is the not unnatural con- 
sequence of its having ceased, for the most 
part, to be artistically interesting. It has 
become an object of easy manufacture, 
showing on every side the stamp of the 
machine ; it has become the article of com- 
merce, produced in quantity, and as we so 
see it we inevitably turn from it, under the 
rare visitations of the critical impulse, to 

102 



BALZAC 

compare it with those more precious pro- 
ducts of the same general nature that we 
used to think of as belonging to the class 
of the hand-made. 

The lesson of Balzac, under this com- 
parison, is extremely various, and I should 
prepare myself much too large a task were 
I to attempt a list of the separate truths 
he brings home. I have to choose among 
them, and I choose the most important ; 
the three or four that more or less include 
the others. In reading him over, in open- 
ing him almost anywhere to-day, what 
immediately strikes us is the part assigned 
by him, in any picture, to the conditions of 
the creatures with whom he is concerned. 
Contrasted with him other prose painters 
of life scarce seem to see the conditions at 
all. He clearly held pretended portrayal 
as nothing, as less than nothing, as a most 
vain thing, unless it should be, in spirit 
and intention, the art of complete repre- 
sentation. "Complete" is of course a 
103 



THE LESSON OF 

great word, and there is no art at all, we 
are often reminded, that is not on too many 
sides an abject compromise. The element 
of compromise is always there ; it is of the 
essence ; we live with it, and it may serve 
to keep us humble. The formula of the 
whole matter is sufficiently expressed per- 
haps in a reply I found myself once mak- 
ing to an inspired but discouraged friend, 
a fellow-craftsman who had declared in his 
despair that there was no use trying, that 
it was a form, the novel, absolutely too 
difficult. "Too difficult indeed ; yet there 
is one way to master it — which is to pre- 
tend consistently that it is n't." We are 
all of us, all the while, pretending — as 
consistently as we can — that it is n't, and 
Balzac's great glory is that he pretended 
hardest. He never had to pretend so hard 
as when he addressed himself to that evo- 
cation of the medium, that distillation of 
the natural and social air, of which I speak, 
the things that most require on the part 
104 



BALZAC 

of the painter preliminary possession — so 
definitely require it that, terrified at the 
requisition when conscious of it, many a 
painter prefers to beg the whole question. 
He has thus, this ingenious person, to in- 
vent some other way of making his char- 
acters interesting — some other way, that 
is, than the arduous way, demanding so 
much consideration, of presenting them 
to us. They are interesting, in fact, as 
subjects of fate, the figures round whom a 
situation closes, in proportion as, sharing 
their existence, we feel where fate comes 
in and just how it gets at them. In the 
void they are not interesting — and Balzac, 
like Nature herself, abhorred a vacuum. 
Their situation takes hold of us because 
it is theirs, not because it is somebody's, 
any one's, that of creatures unidentified. 
Therefore it is not superfluous that their 
identity shall first be established for us, 
and their adventures, in that measure, 
have a relation to it, and therewith an 
105 



THE LESSON OF 

appreciability. There is no such thing in 
the world as an adventure pure and sim- 
ple; there is only mine and yours, and 
his and hers — it being the greatest ad- 
venture of all, I verily think, just to be 
you or I, just to be he or she. To Bal- 
zac's imagination that was indeed in itself 
an immense adventure — and nothing ap- 
pealed to him more than to show how we 
all are, and how we are placed and built-in 
for being so. What befalls us is but an- 
other name for the way our circumstances 
press upon us — so that an account of 
what befalls us is an account of our cir- 
cumstances. 

Add to this, then, that the fusion of all the 
elements of the picture, under his hand, is 
complete — of what people are with what 
they do, of what they do with what they 
are, of the action with the agents, of the 
medium with the action, of all the parts 
of the drama with each other. Such a pro- 
duction as " Le Pere Goriot" for exam- 
io6 



BALZAC 

pie, or as " Eugenie Grandet/' or as " Le 
Cure de Village/' has, in respect to this 
fusion, a kind of inscrutable perfection. 
The situation sits shrouded in its circum- 
stances, and then, by its inner expansive 
force, emerges from them, the action 
marches, to the rich rustle of this great 
tragic and ironic train, the embroidered 
heroic mantle, with an art of keeping to- 
gether that makes of " Le Pere Goriot " 
in especial a supreme case of composition, 
a model of that high virtue that we know 
as economy of effect, economy of line and 
touch. An inveterate sense of proportion 
was not, in general, Balzac's distinguish- 
ing mark ; but with great talents one has 
great surprises, and the effect of this large 
handling of the conditions was more often 
than not to make the work, whatever it 
might be, appear admirably composed. 
Of all the costly charms of a " story " this 
interest derived from composition is the 
costliest — and there is perhaps no better 
107 



THE LESSON OF 

proof of our present penury than the fact 
that, in general, when one makes a plea 
for It, the plea might seemingly (for all it 
is understood !) be for trigonometry or 
osteology. " Composition ? — what may 
that happen to be^ and, whatever it is, 
what has it to do with the matter ? " I 
shall take for granted here that every one 
perfectly knows, for without that assump- 
tion I shall not be able to wind up, as I 
must immediately do. The presence of 
the conditions, when really presented, 
when made vivid, provides for the action 
— which is, from step to step, constantly 
implied in them ; whereas the process of 
suspending the action in the void and 
dressing it there with the tinkling bells of 
what Is called dialogue only makes no pro- 
vision at all for the other interest. There 
are two elements of the art of the novelist 
which, as they present, I think, the greatest 
difficulty, tend thereby most to fascinate 
us : in the first place that mystery of the 
io8 



BALZAC 

foreshortened procession of facts and 
figures, of appearances of whatever sort, 
which is in some lights but another name 
for the picture governed by the principle 
of composition, and which has at any rate 
as little as possible in common with the 
method now usual among us, the juxtapo- 
sition of items emulating the column of 
numbers of a schoolboy's sum in addition. 
It is the art of the brush, I know, as op- 
posed to the art of the slate-pencil ; but 
to the art of the brush the novel must 
return, I hold, to recover whatever may 
be still recoverable of its sacrificed honor. 
The second difficulty that I commend 
for its fascination, at all events, the most 
attaching when met and the most rewarding 
when triumphantly met — though I hasten 
to add that it also strikes me as not only 
the least " met," in general, but the least 
suspected — this second difficulty is that 
of representing, to put it simply, the lapse 
of time, the duration of the subject : rep- 
109 



THE LESSON OF 

resenting it, that is, more subtly than by a 
blank space, or a row of stars, on the his- 
toric page. With the blank space and the 
row of stars Balzac's genius had no affin- 
ity, and he is therefore as unlike as pos- 
sible those narrators — so numerous, all 
round us, it would appear, to-day in espe- 
cial — the succession of whose steps and 
stages, the development of whose action, 
in the given case, affects us as occupying 
but a week or two. No one begins, to my 
sense, to handle the time-element and 
produce the time-effect with the author- 
ity of Balzac in his amplest sweeps — 
by which I am far from meaning in his 
longest passages. That study of the fore- 
shortened image, of the neglect of which 
I suggest the ill consequence, is precisely 
the enemy of the tiresome procession of 
would-be narrative items, seen all in pro- 
file, like the rail-heads of a fence ; a sub- 
stitute for the baser device of accounting 
for the time-quantity by mere quantity of 
no 



BALZAC 

statement. Quality and manner of state- 
ment account for it in a finer way — al- 
ways assuming, as I say, that unless it is 
accounted for nothing else really is. The 
fashion of our day is to account for it al- 
most exclusively by an inordinate abuse of 
the colloquial resource, of the report, from 
page to page, from chapter to chapter, from 
beginning to end, of the talk, between 
the persons involved, in which situation 
and action may be conceived as regis- 
tered. Talk between persons is perhaps, 
of all the parts of the novelist's plan, the 
part that Balzac most scrupulously weighed 
and measured and kept in its place ; judg- 
ing it, I think — though he perhaps even 
had an undue suspicion of its possible 
cheapness, as feeling it the thing that can 
least afford to be cheap — a precious and 
supreme resource, the very flower of illus- 
tration of the subject and thereby not to 
be inconsiderately discounted. It was his 
view, discernibly, that the flower must 
\\ III 



THE LESSON OF 

keep its bloom, or in other words not be 
too much handled, in order to have a 
fragrance when nothing but its fragrance 
will serve. 

It was his view indeed positively that 
there is a law in these things, and that, 
admirable for illustration, functional for 
illustration, dialogue has its function per- 
verted, and therewith its life destroyed, 
when forced, all clumsily, into the con- 
structive office. It is in the drama, of 
course, that it is constructive ; but the 
drama lives by a law so different, verily, 
that everything that is right for it seems 
wrong for the prose picture, and every- 
thing that is right for the prose picture ad- 
dressed directly, in turn, to the betrayal 
of the " play.'' These are questions, how- 
ever, that bore deep — if I have success- 
fully braved the danger that they abso- 
lutely do bore ; so that I must content 
myself, as a glance at this point, with the 
claim for the author of " Le Pere Goriot " 

112 



BALZAC 

that colloquial illustration, in his work, suf- 
fers less, on the whole, than in any other 
I know, from its attendant, its besetting 
and haunting penalty of springing, unless 
watched, a leak in its effect. It is as if the 
master of the ship were keeping his eye on 
the pump; the pump, I mean, of relief and 
alternation, the pump that keeps the vessel 
free of too much water. We must always 
remember that, save in the cases where 
"dialogue '' is organic, is the very law of the 
game — in which case, as I say, the game 
is another business altogether — it is es- 
sentially the fluid element : as, for instance 
(to cite, conveniently, Balzac's most emi- 
nent prose contemporary), was strikingly 
its character in the elder Dumas ; just as 
its character in the younger, the dramatist, 
illustrates supremely what I call the other 
game. The current, in old Dumas, the 
large, loose, facile flood of talked move- 
ment, talked interest, as much as you will, 
is, in virtue of this fluidity, a current in- 
113 



THE LESSON OF 

deed, with so little of wrought texture 
that we float and splash in it; feeling it 
thus resemble much more some capacious 
tepid tank than the figured tapestry, all 
overscored with objects in fine perspective, 
which symbolizes to me (if one may have 
a symbol) the last word of the achieved 
fable. Such a tapestry, with its wealth of 
expression of its subject, with its myriad 
ordered stitches, its harmonies of tone and 
felicities of taste, is a work, above all, of 
closeness — and therefore the more perti- 
nent image here as it is in the name of 
closeness that I am inviting you to let 
Balzac once more appeal to you. 

It will strike you perhaps that I speak 
as if we all, as if you all, without exception 
were novelists, haunting the back shop, 
the laboratory, or, more nobly expressed, 
the inner shrine of the temple ; but such 
assumptions, in this age of print — if I may 
not say this age of poetry — are perhaps 
never too wide of the mark, and I have 
114 



BALZAC 

at any rate taken your interest sufficiently 
for granted to ask you to close up with me 
for an hour at the feet of the master of us 
all. Many of us may stray, but he always 
remains — he is fixed by virtue of his 
weight. Do not look too knowing at that 
— as a hint that you were already con- 
scious he is heavy, and that if this is what 
I have mainly to suggest my lesson might 
have been spared. He is, I grant, too 
heavy to be moved ; many of us may stray 
and straggle, as I say — since we have 
not his inaptitude largely to circulate. 
There is none the less such an odd condi- 
tion as circulating without motion, and I 
am not so sure that even in our own way 
we do move. We do not, at any rate, get 
away from him ; he is behind us, at the 
worst, when he is not before, and I feel 
that any course about the country we ex- 
plore is ever best held by keeping him, 
through the trees of the forest, in sight. 
So far as we do move, we move round him ; 
"5 



THE LESSON OF BALZAC 

every road comes back to him ; he sits 
there, in spite of us, so massively, for ori- 
entation. " Heavy " therefore if we Hke, 
but heavy because weighted with his for- 
tune ; the extraordinary fortune that has 
survived all the extravagance of his career, 
his twenty years of royal intellectual spend- 
ing, and that has done so by reason of the 
rare value of the original property — the 
high, prime genius so tied-up from him 
that that was safe. And " that," through 
all that has come and gone, has steadily, 
has enormously appreciated. Let us then 
also, if we see him, in the sacred grove, as 
our towering idol, see him as gilded thick, 
with so much gold — plated and burnished 
and bright, in the manner of towering 
idols. It is for the lighter and looser and 
poorer among us to be gilded thin ! 



(©be ll^iteri^ibe ^xt0 

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